The Greater Challenge

Everyone knows that the land of Haiti is pretty much barren of trees, the result of several decades of deforestation. And all who see the Haiti-Dominican Republic border from the air comment on the stark contrast between the lush green countryside of the D.R. and the brown countryside of Haiti.  A land once peppered with beautiful mahogany and citrus has succumbed to decades of abuse. Very few mature trees remain, and few young trees  make it to full maturity because desperate poverty drives the peasantry to cut them down to make charcoal so they can cook their food or sell it at market so they can buy food.

When I look at the disfigured land of La Gonave, I want so much to intervene and tell everyone to “Stop it! Can’t you see what you’re doing? Stop cutting down your trees!”

And maybe they do see it… what they’re doing, I mean.  I really sort of think they do know, intuitively, that the trees they cut for charcoal would be better left standing.  But many starving Haitians look at a tree and see in it a way to survive the day. And surviving the day will trump ecologic conscience every time.  And you really can’t blame them.  If I had to choose between feeding my hungry family and preserving a tree for the future good of the island, I’d cut the tree down.  Every time.  It’s the same reason women in Zambia knowingly and willingly expose themselves to HIV by prostituting themselves so they can have money to feed their family.  “If I get AID’s,” one woman said, “I’ll die in 5 or 10 years. But if I can’t feed my children, they will die in a couple of weeks.”

So I’m going to plant as many trees as I can.  Most of them will be fruit trees: mangoes, avocados, papayas, key limes, bananas. We’ll plant some bamboo and moringa too. We expect that most folks will regard trees like these as too valuable to cut down. But the painful reality is that, unless the problems of economy and hunger and health are addressed, planting trees is like putting a bandaid over a severed artery.

When you can tell me how to feed my kids without cutting down a tree to make charcoal, well then I’ll stop cutting down trees. This is the greater challenge.